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Katie Zelem 2019/20: Her importance to Manchester United Women tactical analysis tactics

Katie Zelem 2019/20: Her importance to Manchester United Women – scout report

Manchester United Women have enjoyed a relatively good start to the season considering their status as first time participants in the FAWSL. They currently occupy the fourth position and have deserved it based on their performances in the first half of the season. Even though third-placed Chelsea are eight points ahead, United will not have expected to be top of the chasing pack behind the top three. With a game in hand, United could really cement fourth come the end of the season.

Lauren James has rightly taken most of the plaudits but there have been other stellar performances, most notably defensive midfielder Katie Zelem. The Manchester United captain has been in superb form propelling the team forward and acting as the heartbeat of this United team. Play runs through her and while she may seem very basic in her execution, it’s her simplicity that makes her so dangerous.

This scout report will detail the attributes Zelem possesses and how she fits into Casey Stoney’s tactics. We will use tactical analysis to determine her qualities and how she is the most important player at Manchester United through analysis.

Katie Zelem & Manchester United Women

Zelem primarily plays in the double pivot in Manchester United’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Sitting alongside Hayley Ladd, Zelem plays a playmaking role looking to dictate the pace of the game and provide the team with positive forward movement. She is often seen stealing back possession and pushing United forward through her excellent range of passing or dribbling ability to get into more dangerous positions to unleash her dangerous forwards. The United captain has incredible ball retention skills and can dribble and move out of pressing situations well.

Katie Zelem 2019/20: Her importance to Manchester United Women tactical analysis tactics
Katie Zelem’s Heat Map [Credit: Wyscout]
To better understand her role in the team, we need to understand Manchester United Women’s style of play. Stoney has looked to implement a strong, solid defensive foundation to create a base off of which the team can attack. The Red Devils usually line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation going forward and a deep 4-5-1 out of possession. United primarily look to play on the counter-attack using the pace of Galton, James, and Kirsty Hanson to threaten opposition defences. Jackie Groenen provides the guile and work rate from the number 10 position.

The four bring individual qualities and strengths that have troubled teams going forward. Their 4-5-1 gives them defensive solidarity and aims to tighten up spaces between their defence and midfield. Zelem and Ladd usually patrol the defensive midfield area effectively, sweeping up any loose balls providing Manchester United with a solid foundation to build off of. This is where Zelem’s creative passing and ball carrying attributes come into play and shine.

Tactical Analysis – Positional play

Being a defensive midfielder, Zelem needs to have exceptional positional sense in order to prevent the opposition from penetrating through midfield. With Stoney focusing on keeping a tight, compact shape, the onus is on the two defensive midfielders to lead from the front and force the opposition to try riskier passes or lose possession higher up the pitch allowing the team a counter-attacking opportunity. This is what makes Zelem such an integral part of United’s midfield. She is able to be in the right place at the right times and while Ladd will carry out more of the defensive work, Zelem doesn’t shy away from putting in a tackle. This combined with her playmaking abilities makes her a very dangerous in transitioning from defence to attack.

Part of Zelem’s intelligence is knowing where her teammates are on the pitch alongside her excellent interception and tackling ability to dispossess the opposition and pass effectively. Looking at some of her statistics in her first few months, we can see she has engaged in an average of 16.02 duels per 90, winning 48% of them. Additionally, she averages 7.17 recoveries per 90 with 45.6% of them coming in the opposition half. Considering Ladd is more of the destroyer in this double-pivot combination, the number is impressive.

Katie Zelem 2019/20: Her importance to Manchester United Women tactical analysis tactics
Zelem stays alert and intercepts the incoming pass to put Manchester United on the counter-attack [Credit: Wyscout]
In this example, we can see Zelem smartly anticipate and time her run towards the ball receiver. At the time of the pass, Zelem was the closest player and reacted immediately to get herself in between the ball and the player. In doing she catches the Everton midfielder off guard and manages to dribble her way into the middle third to lay it off to Jessica Sigsworth.

Zelem is equally important in United’s build-up play as, more often than not, she is the link player that bridges the gap between defence and midfield. While United try and play out through the full-backs, there are times when she needs to drop in to receive a pass directly from the centre-backs. The United captain will drop into a deeper position to collect possession even if there are players looking to press and add pressure. Zelem is able to do this due to her incredible skill at keeping possession under pressure.

Being able to manoeuvre the ball through one or two players and keeping possession frees up other players around the pitch. She attracts players around her to try and dispossess her but this often just creates more space to run into or other players to drop in to receive a pass. She receives close to 26 passes per 90 with the majority of them coming from the central defenders and Ladd.

Katie Zelem 2019/20: Her importance to Manchester United Women tactical analysis tactics
Zelem looks to skip past the pressing striker and alleviate pressure off her team [Credit: Wyscout]
Their league match against Everton was impressive more so due to the Blues’ high pressing tactics against the Red Devils. More often than not Chloe Kelly and her strike partner would attempt to pressurise the defenders and anyone coming into the defensive third. In this passage of play, Zelem is able to pick up possession and dribble her way past Simone Magill (#10).

Controlling tempo

From an attacking perspective, Zelem plays a major role in United’s link between midfield and attack by using her passing and intelligent runs to open space to create attacking opportunities. Zelem has incredible vision and creativity where she can see a pass before receiving possession. This allows her to send a pass forward much without taking any pressure from opposing players. Not only is she reliable defensively but can effectively control the tempo of the game in games when United hold the lion’s share of possession.

Katie Zelem 2019/20: Her importance to Manchester United Women tactical analysis tactics
Manchester United Women’s average positions against Everton Women. Zelem (#10) is central to United’s play [Credit: Wyscout]
We touched on United’s preference to attack through their wide players. They are integral to the way Manchester United attack and score goals. Galton, Sigsworth, and Hanson all prefer to drift inside rather than stay on the outside like a traditional winger. James is a complete striker that excels in and around the box. This gives Zelem a number of targets to aim for who can capitalise on small amounts of space, especially James who is exceptional in tight spaces. From long-ranged passes to penetrative passes, Zelem has a wide range of passing in her repertoire that is used to switch play and open up stubborn defences.

Looking at her passing statistics, one point that stands out is her assists versus her xA. This season she averages 0.11 assists per 90 whereas her xA comes up to 0.14. This only further emphasises her ability to create goal-scoring opportunities but the receivers are not clinical enough in taking their chances. Her passes into the final third are quite high with 8.11 at a 68.8% success rate per 90. This shows how United have relied on her passing to provide the momentum to their attacks.

Katie Zelem 2019/20: Her importance to Manchester United Women tactical analysis tactics
Zelem is able to find a way through even the most stubborn defences. She spots the run of Leah Galton and sends a perfect through ball towards the winger [Credit: Wyscout]
This passage of play against Liverpool shows how influential Zelem is in the final third. As she picks up possession in the wide area, she comes inside and looks to find a killer pass through their defence. With four players in front of her, Zelem manages to spot a gap through them playing in Galton’s intelligent run off the shoulder of the defenders. Even though they are focused on Zelem’s position, her pass managed to penetrate through the defence and gives her winger an excellent goal-scoring opportunity.

Another underrated part of her game is her progressive runs combined with her long shot ability. The deep-lying midfielder has an incredible ability to shoot from range and more often than not troubles the goalkeeper. While she hasn’t scored from open play yet, she has had a number of shots on the opposition goal. Starting from a deeper position as part of the double pivot, Zelem can drive into the final third with a late, unmarked run that allows her to get a shot off. Her runs equally cause defences issues because of her ability to dribble and manoeuvre past multiple players. Statistically, Zelem averages 1.9 shots per 90 with 38.9% of them on target.

Katie Zelem 2019/20: Her importance to Manchester United Women tactical analysis tactics
No Everton player is close enough to close Zelem down and is able to get a shot away [Credit: Wyscout]
As we can see in this example, Zelem is able to receive a pass from James in space and is able to get a shot away unopposed. Because of her deeper starting position, Everton’s defenders were unable to pick up on Zelem’s run giving her more than enough time and space to test the goalkeeper from range.

Leading by example

Zelem will continue to be one of Manchester United Women’s most important and influential players. She forms part of the core crux that is slowly developing and forming the spine of the team. With James spearheading the attack, Zelem holds the midfield together alongside Groenen that the team can be built around. If United can find a strong central defender then the rest of the team can grow and become a title-winning side with a few more additions. However, as it stands, Zelem is United’s most important player and without her, the side look like a totally different proposition as they lose her intelligent passing range and progressive runs.


Total Football Analysis Magazine #16: December 2019

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